Conversion StoriesJehovah's Witness

From the Desert to Paradise

Tom Cabeen November 7, 2011 5 Comments

My parents became Jehovah’s Witnesses in April 1954, shortly after my fourth birthday. My father had grown up unchurched; my mother was a nominal Methodist. They embraced the Watchtower version of Christianity enthusiastically. In 1955, believing the end of the world to be imminent, they volunteered to move “where the need is great” and sold their new home in Phoenix, Arizona. Dad was appointed to oversee the Cottonwood, Arizona, congregation, which at the time consisted only of our family of three and one other elderly woman. By 1960, it had grown into a small but zealous group of about a dozen families.

Dad brushed up on his high-school Spanish and started a small Bible study among a group of Mexicans in the area. In 1961, at the Watchtower Society’s request, we moved to El Centro, California, where he served as overseer of a Spanish-speaking congregation. My mother and I started to learn Spanish. I learned it rather easily, but she had much more difficulty. She never learned to speak it fluently. In 1963, we were again asked to move, this time to a small Spanish congregation in Casa Grande, Arizona.

I graduated high school in 1967 and became a full-time door-to-door preacher, or “Pioneer.” As a result, I was classified 4-D (Minister of Religion) by my local draft board and exempted from military service. In the summer of 1968, I applied to serve at the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York. I was invited to serve at “Bethel” starting November 14, 1968. This was the start of a long spiritual pilgrimage.

Shortly after I left home, my parents, encouraged by my example, also began “Pioneering.” Dad was invited to become a traveling minister or “Circuit Overseer.” He worked with Spanish-speaking congregations in the southwest and northeast of the United States for about a decade.

Success in Brooklyn

At Bethel, I was determined to learn as much as possible about Watchtower teachings. I studied hard and applied myself diligently to my work. That, along with a natural aptitude for the duties assigned to me, resulted in my being given much more responsibility than usual for someone my age.

In 1969, I was assigned to the printing department, working on the press which produced The Watchtower magazine. Within three years, I was a foreman over several presses. In 1977, I was appointed Pressroom Overseer, with supervision of more than a hundred men and forty large printing presses.

When not working, I cultivated friendships with mature, responsible members of the Bethel staff, many of whom worked in offices where the most respected, loyal, and mature Witnesses were assigned. I had many in-depth discussions with them about the Society’s teachings and the functioning of the organization.

Late in 1973, I began dating another Bethelite, a lovely young woman named Gloria, whom I had met shortly after she arrived in 1971. We were married on May 25, 1974. Gloria was also a zealous believer and a hard worker. We had both decided to dedicate our lives full-time to what we believed to be the few remaining years before “Armageddon,” the end of this age and the beginning of a new one.

In my local Brooklyn congregation, Greenpoint Spanish, I was first appointed an elder in 1971, when I was twenty-one. The following year I was appointed a “Bethel Elder.” As such, I often spoke as an official Watchtower Society representative at summer conventions in English, Spanish, and French. (I was the featured speaker at a District Assembly in Roanoke, Virginia, at age twenty-six.) Gloria and I both learned French and were assigned to a French-speaking congregation, composed mostly of Haitians, in Newark, New Jersey.

Disturbing Questions

I was baptized as a Witness in 1959, but had never read through the Bible. I was required to do so as a new member of the headquarters staff. The more I read, the more inconsistencies I found between plain statements in Scripture and Witness beliefs. At first, I attributed the problem to my youth and inexperience. But in time, as I began to be more respected and trusted, I discussed my Bible questions privately with older, well-placed headquarters staffers, and was surprised to discover how many of them had the same kinds of questions and how openly they discussed them.

The publication of Aid to Bible Understanding, a Bible dictionary, in 1971, initiated major organizational changes for the Watchtower Society. For many, including me, this opened the door to a reexamination of other teachings. I wondered, “If we have been wrong in our understanding of arrangements we formerly thought to be solidly based on Scripture, why couldn’t we be wrong about doctrines, too?”

During the 1970s, a growing number of sincere Bethelites began to read other Bible translations in addition to the Watchtower’s own New World Translation, as well as Bible commentaries. Some gathered in private groups to study and discuss things without the “assistance” of Watchtower publications. By 1979, I was convinced that there could be no reconciling of some key Watchtower teachings with the Bible. I still believed, however, that God was guiding the Watchtower organization and that the end was near, so I expected big changes to come. I awaited them with eager expectation.

Gloria, on the other hand, was unhappy. She wanted us to leave Bethel and start a family. Since I firmly believed the Watchtower chronology upon which their end-times predictions are based, I could not imagine why anyone would want to leave with the end so close. I brought the matter up with a trusted friend on the Watchtower’s Governing Body. He gave me a copy of a letter sent to the Watchtower Society by Carl Olof Jonsson, a Witness elder from Sweden. Jonsson presented indisputable historical evidence that Watchtower chronology was seriously flawed. His logic was solid and his documentation scholarly. I read and reread the evidence. Finally, I was convinced. I was also heartsick.

What was hard to accept was not so much the error but its corollary. “Bible chronology” is absolutely essential in establishing the Watchtower Society’s claim to be God’s “channel of communication” to mankind in the “time of the end,” just prior to the end of this wicked world. If the chronology is wrong, so are all the Watchtower claims. I began to seriously consider the possibility that the Watchtower leaders were misled at best, hypocrites and false prophets at worst. At this point, there was no reason to postpone our desire to have a family. Gloria and I resigned from Bethel service effective July 15, 1980, and moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Gloria had grown up.

I was not ready to simply walk away entirely from my religious community. Our whole lives were tied up with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Still, our lives were to change greatly. We had absolutely no money, for we had spent the previous twelve years working as unpaid volunteers. I had studied hard and had both extensive job experience and technical expertise, but no college degree. (I could have attended college on a full scholarship, but Witnesses are strongly discouraged from higher education. As a “true believer,” I followed their teaching in that matter, too.)

Although I had worked in good conscience and thoroughly enjoyed my service with the Watchtower Society, and loved my Witness brothers and sisters dearly, it appeared virtually certain that there would be an even more significant parting of the ways. I simply lost my desire to actively support a belief system in which I no longer believed. We would have to start over, both spiritually and financially.

Disfellowshipped and Shunned

We had left the headquarters of our own volition, and I was still officially in good standing with the organization. So I was appointed an elder in the Lancaster congregation. Although I had doubts about Watchtower teachings, I did not discuss them openly, and saw no reason to withdraw from Jehovah’s Witnesses as long as my association with them did not require me to violate my conscience. However, the main focus of Watchtower publications for many months was warnings against and condemnation of “apostates,” defined as those who disagree with Watchtower teachings. I could not support that perspective, but I was often asked to do just that. Early in February 1981, I resigned my eldership. Later that year, on August 9, 1981, our first son Matthew was born.

In the spring of 1982, the elders asked to speak with Gloria and me after one of the regular congregation meetings. I was questioned (in Gloria’s presence) for an hour or so about “doubts.” The elders asked if I believed the Watchtower Society to be God’s exclusive organization (a key Watchtower teaching). I replied that although I thought that God had worked through Jehovah’s Witnesses, I was not willing to state that He works through them exclusively. The meeting ended with no action taken. The same elders asked us to attend a second brief meeting a few weeks later. In this meeting, they announced their decision to disfellowship us. This official action meant that every Witness member of our family and friends would be required to completely shun us or face the same consequences. Nearly three decades of association with Jehovah’s Witnesses were over. Our families and our religious community had rejected us. We were on our own.

Does God Work through an Organization?

What I needed was some reliable way to determine which Watchtower teachings were true and which were false. I had discovered error, but what I needed was truth. Because of the centrality of the Witness idea that God uses the Watchtower organization as an exclusive channel to communicate with His people, that was the first focus of my study. Using a concordance and Bible dictionary, I began to carefully search the Scriptures for evidence as to whether or not God had consistently worked through an organization as an official instrument to communicate with or direct humans. I concluded that He did not, and published my research in an article entitled, “Does God Work through an Organization?” It was eventually translated into several languages and became popular among exiting Witnesses, particularly after the Internet came into wide use.

Although I wrote in good conscience, I am somewhat sad now at the degree of success I had. I had “thrown the baby out with the bath water,” concluding that all religious structures are basically alike. A few years later, I revised my article to show that Christ was joined organically with His Body, and that it is not like human organizations. But I did not yet grasp the significance of that truth. I had much to learn about the visible Church.

“Organized Religion” Revisited

For several years, Gloria and I did not join any organized Christian fellowship. We read and studied the Bible only on our own or with other former Witnesses in a small support group. We formed strong social bonds with these dear friends, but our spiritual growth was slow. Usually our discussions were negative, centered on things we once believed but now rejected. We covered much of the same ground every time we met. Finally, Gloria said, “I am tired of going over and over these same old things. I want to learn something new and true about Jesus Christ!”

Our second son, James, was born November 22, 1986. As our two boys began to get older, we felt a growing need to find Bible-believing Christians with whose children ours could associate. We visited a local Christian and Missionary Alliance fellowship and became friends with the pastor and his wife. When I told him about my background, he asked me to teach an adult Bible class. He did not ask me for details of my actual beliefs, but I always taught “orthodoxy” as I understood it. I always supported my teaching from passages of Scripture and respected Protestant commentaries. Neither Gloria nor I ever officially joined that fellowship. We were still reluctant to become associated with “organized religion.” After about a year, the pastor reluctantly asked me to step down as a teacher, since I had still not officially joined. I didn’t blame him.

We looked for a place to worship that was “kid friendly” and eventually settled into an independent Evangelical Baptist fellowship. There we met many fine Christian people, and quickly got involved in religious activities. A few months after we began attending there, I was again asked to teach an adult Bible class, which I did almost continuously for nearly fourteen years.

History Lessons

In 1998, I started working on another article, entitled “Where Is the Body of Christ?” My intention was to help former JWs find and associate with other believers in the community. I wanted to highlight the similarity between Evangelical worship and that of first-century disciples. I wanted to show that practical Christian living rather than uniformity of structure and doctrine is what matters most, and encouraged my readers to find and join a “Bible-believing” Christian fellowship of their choice.

I started my research using only the Scriptures, but soon discovered how little I actually knew about the early Christians. I realized that I was “reading into” the Scriptures what I wanted to find. I honestly could not reconstruct the early Church in much detail simply from what is written in the New Testament. So I ended up buying history books — dozens, eventually — and started reading. I published the article. But my research had raised a whole new set of interesting questions.

During my research, I kept running across references to the “early Church Fathers.” Practically every scholarly source I knew of respected them highly. But I knew very little about these writers, so I bought a set of the ten-volume Ante-Nicene Fathers and began to read, starting with the writings of those who had known and conversed with the Apostles.

What first surprised me is how they applied the Scriptures. There was no official collection of Christian Scripture when these writers put pen to parchment, but they did quote from writings that later became part of the Christian canon. Often they applied a familiar passage in a way that was completely new to me. I was intrigued by the implications of this fact.

I began to see that the Bible is not self-interpreting. Most passages can be understood in more than one way. The problem is not resolved even if one is familiar with the original languages, as were all the ancient writers. Clearly, some parts of the sacred writings are to be taken literally, some metaphorically, others allegorically or figuratively. How do we sort out which is which? I had paid a lot of money for excellent commentaries, yet often I was surprised at the variety of explanations of a given passage I found among respected commentators from differing Christian traditions or denominations.

Slowly, I came to understand that there is simply no reliable way to determine if a particular Christian teaching is true based only on whether or not it is logical, reasonable, and seems to be supported by “proof texts” from Scripture. Some other source of authoritative interpretation is needed. Some Christians expect to receive individual interpretational guidance from the Holy Spirit; others rely on scholarship, historical sources, or reason. But none of these methods produces general consensus among all commentators or interpreters.

I finally realized that this is why every single denomination uses written materials in addition to the Bible, whether a catechism, commentaries, books, tracts, or other publications. No one just hands a Bible to a potential convert and says, “Read the book, and you will understand the Christian message completely and clearly.” Every Christian teacher must add explanation to Scripture in order to communicate the full Christian message.

About this time, we began attending the Episcopal Church. We loved the Anglican liturgy, music, and overall approach to worship and theology. Although widespread liberalism was a problem in many parishes, our parish was warm, friendly, and quite orthodox.

A Great Apostasy?

Nearly twenty years had passed since I had left the Watchtower Society, but I still believed that, sometime shortly after the end of the first century, the faithful, early, apostolic Church had become the corrupt Roman Catholic Church. Most Protestants, I later learned, have a somewhat similar view, except that they date the falling away from orthodoxy into the fourth or fifth century or even later. Both Luther and Calvin, however, believed that the ante-Nicene Church taught authentic Christianity.

I began to think about the implications of the “great apostasy” idea. If true, one corollary is that for some period of time, Jesus had no authentic congregation of faithful followers, no visible body of believers, or church, on earth. But if that is true, and if the Bible is not self-interpreting, once the correct interpretation got lost, it could never be restored.

Scripture says that Christ revealed many things to His disciples that were not written down (Jn 21:25). It also says that “the church” (not the holy writings) is the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). The teachings Jesus taught His disciples orally were not “added to Scripture” by the Apostles. They were taught orally to the new disciples they made. The writings that later became Scripture were composed within a fully functioning church setting in which every member had been taught orally for decades. When the Apostle Paul wrote epistles to congregations, he had usually spent much time with them prior to that, teaching them orally. So, his letters often left many things unstated. They primarily dealt with exceptions, not normal teachings and practices everyone already knew.

An Invisible Church?

For many years after I left the Witnesses, even as an Evangelical Protestant, I believed that the members of the “true Church” were scattered among all the world’s Christian denominations. This “invisible church” was composed of believers in any Christian community who take their faith seriously and attempt to live by the Scriptures. They were the “wheat” of Jesus’ “wheat and weeds” parable (Mt 13:24–30). I began, however, to see problems with that perspective.

An invisible church composed of scattered individuals who are not in contact with each other, and who are not under any common leadership, in fact, has no outward, visible characteristics at all, for it is invisible! We can never know anything for sure about such a church: where it is, what its members believe, or how they worship. It looks like whatever we want it to look like, for there is nothing real with which to compare it. It is, and will always remain, a “church” of our own construction.

More importantly, it doesn’t look at all like the Church described in the New Testament, which was full of real people, saints and sinners alike, a living, structured community, under the leadership and tutelage of bishops, elders or presbyters, and deacons, to whom the believers submitted. Every Christian congregation of God’s people described in Scripture is not only visible, it is human, with all the problems which exist in any family, group, or community of humans anywhere. How can an invisible church be “salt and light” in the community? How can unbelievers see its good works and give glory to God? Even the Reformers, though they rejected the authority of Rome, recognized the need for and existence of leadership and structure within the body of believers. I rejected the idea of an invisible church once and for all.

Sacraments

I continued reading history books, along with the early Christian writings. I was surprised that so many concepts and teachings I had once rejected had been presented incorrectly, even dishonestly, in both Watchtower and Evangelical Protestant literature, then explained away as illogical or unscriptural. The early Christians’ presentation of these concepts usually made more sense and fit the Scriptures better than the explanations of Christian teaching I had read in Protestant commentaries. As I became convinced of their validity, gradually my understanding of Christianity began to change. “Problem passages” of Scripture with which I had struggled for years slowly began to disappear. A new “big picture” was starting to fit together for me. I was learning things that were entirely new to me. They were to completely transform my understanding of how Christ reconciles sinners to a righteous God.

A prime example is the early Christian belief that bread and wine, when blessed by the Christian presbyter officiating at a Eucharist celebration, actually become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Of course, this is exactly what Jesus actually says in the narratives of the Last Supper, but the idea was still startling. Most Protestants take Jesus’ words to be symbolic. (There’s that interpretation problem again!)

I knew that Christians, in some mysterious way, actually are the Body of Christ. I once took that to be merely a metaphor. But I learned that Christ’s disciples are joined in a very literal way to Christ when they consume His Body and Blood. This action corresponds with the ancient Jews consuming the Passover lamb and is intimately connected with salvation. In fact, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (Jn 6:53). What a concept!

This was my introduction to the “sacraments” or “mysteries” of the Christian faith. God extends graces to His people through and in connection with material objects or actions: the water of Baptism, the oil of consecration, and hands laid on in Ordination. I had never heard these things from Witnesses or Evangelical Christians. At first, I thought the idea to be totally unscriptural, but I began to see it everywhere. I noticed how many powerful works done by Jesus and the Apostles involved physical acts like touching or breathing on the recipients, or objects like bread, fish, oil, or wine.

Material objects, when blessed and used by the Apostles and their successors as Jesus taught, become both signs of and instruments through which God’s grace is given to humans. They play an important role in healing and restoring sinners to full fellowship with Him. God works through His creation, not around or in spite of it.

At that time, I still knew virtually nothing about the Catholic Church. So when I noticed a copy of the Catholic Catechism at a used book sale, I bought it and started reading. I was shocked at what I found! The Catholic explanation of Christian faith and morals, including salvation, Baptism, and redemption, and my investigation into the historical early Church had allowed me to adopt a Catholic perspective without my strong anti-Catholic prejudice getting in the way.

Point of Decision

I began to read Catholic writings enthusiastically. Catholic explanations of Christianity fit the Scriptures, the real world, and the human heart. I still had much to learn, but every single teaching I investigated rang true. The deeper I looked, the better they looked. At some point, the evidence became conclusive for me. I shared the things I was learning with Gloria, who is deeply spiritual. (She had been baptized Catholic as an infant, but raised as a Witness.) She read, reflected, and prayed. We discussed some issues, but I did not pressure her into a decision. I just prayed and waited. She did the same, reading and praying; then one day, she simply said, “We should become Catholics.” Her openness to the Holy Spirit’s guidance confirmed to her that the Catholic Church is what we had been searching for.

What we have found Catholic teaching to be is astounding: deep, scriptural, historically supportable, elegant, logical, and coherent. I honestly believe that anyone who follows these teachings faithfully will become a godly man or woman. This is where we have belonged all these years. We were received into the Roman Catholic Church on Friday, June 9, 2006, and are completely happy within the ancient Church of Jesus Christ. Most importantly, we are home.


Tom Cabeen

Tom, Gloria, and their son Matt were received into the Roman Catholic Church in 2006. Their son James entered the Church in 2009. Tom was ordained to the permanent diaconate of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut, on June 7, 2014.